I just had an interesting conversation with a client: he asked me how you get a team to move beyond brainstorming. Oxford Creativity have a rule in our innovation sessions, that we always create a “Solution Park” in which we put ideas as they come up, in order to keep people engaged in TRIZ’s systematic approaches.
Brainstorming has its place, and generating solutions is fun, but it has a number of risks.
1) You don’t spend enough time understanding the problem, and you end up solving the “wrong” problem. Probably about 40% of the problems we are brought into solve are not the real problem: they are actually interesting but flawed solutions to a deeper problem. Uncovering and solving that more fundamental problem always generates more robust solutions.
2) You run out of energy. This is why simple tricks or triggers like “imagine how a rose could solve your problem” are often used, but these are random and while they can encourage new ways of thinking, they are not related to your situation. It is a bit like searching for buried treasure and just picking random places to dig. If you spend the time modelling your problem in a TRIZzy way, the solution triggers suggested will suggest the best places to dig, focusing your energy in the right places.
3) You are dependent on the knowledge in the room. Chemists will suggest chemical ideas, biologists biological ideas, mechanical engineers will suggest ideas involving duct tape or hitting it really hard with a hammer (or both). This limits the scope of solutions you can generate.
4) Brainstorming favours certain types of people: not everyone in a team will contribute equally. Some people find it very easy to generate lots of ideas – others don’t. Some people are very comfortable pushing their ideas forward – others aren’t. However if you want to get the most from your team, you need to encourage everyone to participate, and having a big sheet up on the wall and giving everyone post it notes encourages even the quieter people who are often shouted down during brainstorming to participate and share their ideas. And I say this as a noisy, confident person who loves to share her ideas…..(I often feel sorry for the people who have to facilitate me during our facilitation training sessions)…
5) You can be under the tyranny of a facilitator. When you have a facilitator at the front of the room in front of a flipchart, I can tell you exactly how many people in the room are fully engaged, fully participating and enjoying themselves. One. The facilitator. It can be a collosal waste of everyone else’s time and energy. We always split people into groups whenever we can, but even if you have to have someone at the front of the room with a flipchart, everyone else can still be generating solutions and sharing them.
5) ALL ideas are shared. This is important as the best ideas usually come from combining different ideas together. It also stops the most senior person in the room pushing their idea forward, no matter how terrible it is…
The joy of teams is that different people come up with different ideas, and we want to capture all of them.
I am passionate about getting teams fully engaged and participating in innovation sessions, and using a solution park is an incredibly simple and very powerful way of encourage team innovation. If you want to start a session with brainstorming, by all means do so, but put all the ideas on the solution park, draw a line underneath them, then move on. Apply systematic tools and I guarantee you will generate many more solutions – and demonstrably move beyond brainstorming.